Hokky Situngkir

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2012
This description of Hokky Situngkir's work was prepared when Hokky Situngkir was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.


Hokky Situngkir, an expressive, rising young scientist, is engaging the Indonesian populace in uncovering, valuing, and using its diverse cultural knowledge. In a country of repressed cultural diversity and competing ideologies, Hokky applies the objectivity of science to build a shared national cultural narrative and make its value accessible to all.

The New Idea

By introducing a social system that connects people of different islands and local identities across Indonesia to a national information project with a social purpose, Hokky is liberating the rich but repressed cultural heritage of Indonesia and making it available in ways that allow anyone to access its value. Hokky has developed organizational, web, and mobile systems to empower Indonesians to record and share samples of Indonesia’s cultural history: musical instruments, dance, batik, weavings, architectural designs, games, ancient documents, and more. A photograph of a batik design, for example, from one small corner of the country becomes a data point in a national scientific analysis to identify, confirm, and make accessible Indonesia’s traditional batik designs. The open source collection of cultural samples allows rapid data aggregation, which is then analyzed by a council of scientists, anthropologists, and other experts to build a reliable and comprehensive database of traditional designs. Hokky then makes this database available online to the Indonesian public and the world.

The accessibility of this cultural data, previously buried in the academic work of anthropologists, or in some cases, lost even to the communities of their origin, serves three main purposes. First, it not only preserves Indonesia’s rich cultural heritage but unlocks cultural potential in several ways—by helping Indonesians construct a new narrative of their shared history in the wake of forced political and economic unity under Soeharto—by making Indonesia’s cultural diversity a national asset from which the rest of the world can learn, and by enhancing future cultural research. Second, it enables the protection of Indonesia’s intellectual property. Where traditional designs are collected and made available online in a reliable process, it becomes far more difficult for outsiders to claim traditional Indonesian designs as their own. Third, it has the potential to advance economic opportunity by opening up new landscapes of creativity in the use of traditional designs to market a diversity of products.

The value of Hokky’s system, though, does not rest only in the outputs, but also in the process itself. The system design encourages, indeed relies on, the participation of experts and ordinary Indonesians, alike. Participants include university students, aging craftsmen, policymakers, art historians, scientists, anthropologists, business people, urban and rural dwellers, all from diverse regions across Indonesia’s far-flung island geography. Whether an artisan in a remote village identifying a little-known traditional batik design, a university student using modern technology to help that artisan photograph and upload that design to the database, a scientist analyzing the data, or a modern batik designer accessing that design online to add value to new products, each participant develops a greater awareness of, appreciation for, and ability to access the value of Indonesia’s rich cultural diversity.

The Problem

Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago with a population of 240 million people spread across 13,667 islands. It is home to over 750 languages and 350 ethnic groups. Indonesians are bound together politically as a modern nation whose constitution establishes a diverse, secular society. There is a potential idea and participation pool in all that diversity. Indonesia’s history is rich with examples of collective action and problem-solving, from building large stone structures by hand to batik design and dance. For preservation purposes, these rich histories, if documented at all, have been kept in museums. Instead of generating value from Indonesia’s remarkable diversity, only a limited group of scholars and academics have been able to appreciate and study them because of a critical gap: citizens’ limited access to trustworthy, high-quality and empowering information that allows them to appreciate and participate in the preservation and appreciation of their cultural heritage.

The striking dichotomy of Indonesia’s cultural richness being cloaked in cultural uniformity stems from a history of political structures and policies that encouraged conformity over celebrating diversity. Particularly during the years of Soeharto’s New Order, policies aimed to suppress cultural differences in the name of developing national unity. While Indonesia’s unique archipelagic geographical landscape makes it naturally difficult for the population to interact collectively, administrative borders that cut across cultural and ethnic lines deliberately aimed to further diminish differences. While cultural patterns persisted, traditional designs and skills were transmitted mostly orally, to a few. No protections were developed for traditional Indonesian cultural practitioners, resulting in external claims on Indonesian cultural heritage. For example, in recent years, a neighboring country claimed to have originated the Balinese dance, as part of a campaign aimed at capturing more tourist interest. Similarly, a small Balinese jewelry maker was arrested for copyright infringement over a ring of his own design that had been registered by a buyer in a European country. In both cases, the value of Indonesia’s rich cultural heritage was being appropriated to create value externally rather than channeling value creation and benefits within Indonesia. The appropriation of Indonesian cultural heritage is likely to continue because public participation in the collection and use of traditional knowledge, especially among younger generations, is low and sporadic.

The highly complex and interconnected systems affecting Indonesia’s population and its well-being require going beyond the traditional sectorial or single disciplinary approaches typically employed by government to address its population’s needs. The influence of an unpredictable global economy has increased the need for tools that build resilience and innovation among Indonesia’s many cultures and traditions. The increasing access to computation and information technology has opened new opportunities to create those tools. The challenge, then, is developing a new approach to addressing problems that increases the participation of Indonesia’s expansive and diverse population in creating new value for its people.

The Strategy

By applying a data-based, scientific approach to cultural history, Hokky is creating the systems and tools for people to gather and use multidisciplinary cultural knowledge. Hokky invites all Indonesians to participate in and benefit from what previously was the realm only of anthropologists, historians, and other cultural experts and guardians. He does this through creative use of information technology and science and the equally creative mobilization of stakeholders.

In 2007, Hokky created a digital cultural portal that serves as an open library of Indonesian cultural heritage. Managed through his initiative, Indonesia Archipelago Cultural Initiatives (IACI), this portal (www.budaya-indonesia.org) serves as Hokky’s instrument to mobilize young people to build the Indonesian Traditional Culture Heritage Encyclopedia and Indonesian Visual Encyclopedia. Through mass media outreach and presence on a national TV program, Hokky targets students from high school age through college and trains and challenges them to photograph, document, and upload certain cultural artifacts from practitioners, including their grandparents and neighbors, into the open library. Mindful that in many rural parts of Indonesia there is no online access, Hokky has a strategy to target college students to collect data on trips home, or to the homes of their rural friends, and then upload them when they return to their studies. To date, there are more than 400 contributors from across the country who have contributed more than 15,000 data entries, more than 10,000 edits and more than a million web visits. Hokky is developing a cell-phone application feature to make it easy for people to document and directly upload to the web portal.

In the case of batik, thousands of designs from across Indonesia have been collected and analyzed. As a result, information about the family, history, and distribution of Indonesian batik, now has been produced and made available to the public online. This work helped Indonesian batik receive a UNESCO cultural heritage designation in 2009. Furthermore, when the controversy arose over the origins of Balinese dance, Indonesia appealed to UNESCO, which resolved the dispute by affirming that Balinese dance originated in Bali. It relied on Hokky’s data to reach that conclusion.

Hokky realized that Indonesia’s rich and diverse culture, even if recovered from Indonesia’s own troubled history, could encounter the uniformity effect of globalization. Indonesia needs innovation that requires diversity to enrich variations in industrial patterns, economy, and innovative technologies. Hokky thus designed an analysis tool, which transforms the raw cultural data into useful information. Specifically, Hokky has produced innovative technology including software to design fractal batik, algorithmic computational music, and architecture generative software. The new knowledge production process has helped young people to have the potential to develop creative economy in music, architecture, dance, and batik designs.

For instance, by utilizing a multidisciplinary approach including econophysics, computer science, mathematics, and social science, Hokky and his team have produced new batik fractal designs, showing how computational analysis applied to this wealth of data can aid innovation. Hokky’s team has turned this analysis into batik fractal software that allows people to produce new batik fractal designs on their own. The small and medium Batik enterprise association in Central Java has been introduced to and trained on the software with the hope that they can enrich their batik designs to capture new value among consumers and collectors. To complete the model, Hokky set up a fractal batik small enterprise in Bandung, the profit from which funds the portal initiative. In partnership with the Ministry of Research and Technology, Hokky has also provided the software and training to batik designers in sixty villages in Java.

Considering there is no regulation that protects nationwide traditional cultural expression from commercial exploitation, Hokky and IACI work on policy advocacy on Nusantara Cultural Heritage State License (NCHSL). Unlike the regular property rights held by an individual or an organization, NHCSL is the first policy of international intellectual property rights that is held by a country. Not only does it protect the traditional culture, NCHSL would also encourage common sense of ownership and restrain the country from disintegration attempts.

Hokky has presented the draft policy to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and Foreign Affairs. Together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, IACI actively participates in meetings with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). As part of WIPO requirements, by January 2014, the NCHSL should be able to be backed up by what and where the data should be protected. Hokky is therefore mobilizing all parties in the country to engage in the “One Million Cultural Data” campaign. He engaged State Ministries, local governments, and UNESCO officials to boost the campaign. He also partners with corporations to channel their corporate social responsibility funds to the campaign efforts and invites portal owners to invite participation. Hokky worked with mass media, which used celebrities to attract public interest to join the campaign. Once people upload the data, the art curators, anthropologists, and scientists will do categorization and editing and the laymen provide comments. Hokky also provides prizes as an incentive to the contributors in accordance to the amount of data uploaded.

Hundreds of people who participate, mostly the younger generations, have now gained new perspectives in appreciation and preservation of traditional heritage, and innovations have emerged.

The portal and its applications are supported by an ecosystem of organizations. The IACI is an initiative of the Bandung Fe Institute, a not-for-profit research-based organization founded by Hokky in 2002. Bandung Fe’s mission is to promote new multidisciplinary practices in how people solve complex collective action problems. With an annual budget of around US$24k, Hokky and his fourteen team members are developing strategies to encourage business practitioners, policymakers, and young people to practice a research-based approach to developing innovative solutions. Hokky has developed analytical and computational tools in the forms of social complexity software. He opens up internships and volunteer programs for young people at his Bandung Fe Institute to learn about the model. The mobilization of data collection and young collectors is governed by three institutions, namely Indonesian Culture Association (Perhimpunan Budaya Indonesia-PBI), Indonesian Culture Network (Jaringan Budaya Indonesia-JBI), and IACI Creative Economy Task Force (Satuan Ekonomi Kreatif IACI). PBI is the host organization for the budaya-indonesia.org portal. It conducts research in culture and how the cultural exploration could answer world’s challenges in social, economic, political, science and technology. Through its Cultural Security Discussion Group, PBI has started the proposal of Nusantara Culture Heritage State License to WIPO. It also conducts cultural expeditions to centers of traditional cultures and road-shows to spread the use of information technology to preserve traditional culture against global trends. JBI is a network to run the vision of PBI by building Indonesian culture appreciation groups beyond IACI, creating partnerships with other parties. IACI Creative Economy Task Force is to maintain economic and financial independency of IACI and spread to other parties as a model in how Indonesia develops its economy based on its rich diverse cultural landscape.

To further institutionalize the impact, Hokky and Ashoka Fellow Yohanes Surya set up Surya Research International (SRI), a for-profit research institution that partners with government offices and corporations to apply complex science to address current challenges. SRI is also used as means to sustain Hokky’s non-for-profit endeavors. To Hokky, successful policy design depends on the ability of the government to understand and predict the complex behaviors of such systems in order to design more effective governmental programs, regulations, treaties, and infrastructures. Hokky is therefore developing a partnership with the Ministry of Finance to develop a financial crisis management protocol. Hokky was also asked by the instructor of the Indonesia Badminton Association about how to optimize the performance of the national badminton team. He helped them collect the data and based on the analysis they developed the winning strategy. Currently, Hokky is also working on the data collection for Indonesia’s football team.

The Person

Hokky, the oldest of three siblings, was born thirty years ago in Siantar, North Sumatra. His role model was his grandfather, for his love for the nation and art. One of Indonesia’s premiere composers, his grandfather, Liberty Manik, composed one of Indonesia’s national anthems, Satu Nusa Satu Bangsa. He also became the first Doctor in Art in Asia for his dissertation that put musical notation to Muslim’s Azan, and later in the 1980s, “transcribed” Johann Sebastian Bach’s Fugue.

Inspired by his grandfather, Hokky loved reading and writing; having begun at just four-years-old. He lived in many cities as a child due to his father’s changing posts as a Minister and at times found himself cycling 30 to 40 km to go to the public library in order to quench his thirst for knowledge. When his father started his job as a lecturer in communication in Medan, Hokky was able to attend high school and seek scientific knowledge in new ways. He often read scientific books borrowed from university students who rented a room at his house because he found the structure of the writing more compelling than prose.

Hokky’s three loves growing up were music (which he indulged in through his band) mathematics, and physics. His idols were Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, from whom he learned the values of dedication and perseverance as a scientist. Hokky’s love for experimentation and discovery grew and he once discovered how to detect whether or not fruits are sour by indicating the fruit’s changed color when smashed. At high school he was inspired by aeromodeling and set up a group to further explore from scientific perspectives. After graduating from high school, Hokky wanted to study physics but his parents objected, directing him instead to a more “practical” field. In 1996 Hokky pursued electrical engineering as his major at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB). He declined a scholarship to study abroad since he wanted to dedicate himself to Indonesia. Part of his decision to choose ITB was also because he learned that it was active in the ousting of the president and the fall of corrupt government in the period prior to the reform era. This pushed Hokky to be active at the Student’s Union. He set up student Ganesha 10 Community and engaged in different student activities from culture and art to human rights. Hokky wrote many articles, which were used as a reference for student movements at his campus. However, he saw too that in the post-reform phase, the different ideologies emerging resulted in conflicts and friction among student groups rather than productive dialogue and harmony. Hokky therefore set up a new division of the Tiang Bendera Humanity Social Institute at the Student Union where humanity was the common platform for students of different ideologies to act together.

When Hokky graduated from college, he was not satisfied with his well-earned diploma. He was embarking on a new journey to design work for society. He wanted to take his scientific learning and put it to use for people, to spread its benefit of concentrating on facts rather than ideology—and to use it to help Indonesia learn how to integrate and benefit from its diversity in new ways. Hokky further learned social issues and deepened them with scientific perspective. Through the Internet he independently explored complexity theory and its application to address social issues using physics theory. In 2002 Hokky founded Bandung Fe Institute as a non-profit entity to develop studies, public education, and empowerment in collaboration. In 2003 he met Surya whose work also combines the fields of economics and physics. They began to work together on joint research and set up Surya Institute International, a consulting firm developed as the funding source for Hokky’s not-for-profit organization.

In 2011 Hokky received the Bakrie Award, which is given to outstanding young scientists. His non-traditional approach to research has led him to win five more awards for work done with the Business Innovation Center with the Ministry of Research and Technology. Hokky is an accomplished mentor and his mentees have gone on to win gold medals at the International Conference of Young Scientists and First Step to Nobel Prize in Physics.